Identity crisis is no stranger to the church. Across the centuries of church history, God’s people have faced quandaries, crossroads, schisms, and even reformations in the pursuit of a biblical model of “doing church.” God is not the one with the identity crisis, and the church’s purpose has remained unchanged; however, the way people have approached the issue has been one of controversy. Despite all the deliberation, there has been no consensus on one right way. The endless smorgasbord of denominations,varieties, subgroups, methods, and styles of church are a testament to this fact. Today, there is a bit of disagreement that has to do with the purpose of church services. A church’s solution to this question can affect their whole program, budget, location, attendance, music style, and just about everything else.
The Question: What is the purpose of a church service?
The question is a simple one, but it defies a simple answer. It’s one of those back-to-the-basics philosophical questions, the kind that we just sort of avoid thinking about, because it’s either too difficult or boat-rocking to answer. The question drives at one of the core activities of the church—the church services. What is the purpose of a church service? Put another way, the question is “who are we trying to reach in a church service?” Or, “Why are we having a church service?” “What purpose are we trying to fulfill in holding a church service?”
Answering this question is going to drastically affect what you do at 11am on Sunday morning.
For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to look at two basic answers to the question. And, yes, this article is open to the accusations of broad brushstrokes, so feel free to vilify the author in the comments section below.
Answer #1: A place where unbelievers can hear about a relationship with Jesus.
According to this school of thought, the church is primarily an evangelistic center. This style of church has morphed only slightly from the generation-old seeker-sensitive churches. “Seeker churches” were nonbeliever friendly. In other words, a nonbeliever could feel very comfortable going to a church like this. He could drive up to a steel-and-glass building (with no crosses or steeples), walk into a mall-like lobby, snatch a cappucino at the coffee bar, slide into a theater-style seat, sit back and enjoy the same style of music that he likes to listen to on his radio. All the while, he’s actually in a church, getting a bit of Jesus message every now and then through the music or possibly even through a little drama or speech in the church service.
Obviously, that style of church became really popular. Seeker-sensitive churches were more welcoming to people who would otherwise never set foot in a stained glass-decorated, steeple-bedecked building, full of people seated in pews, wearing suit-and-tie getups.
That style of church isn’t dead…at all. Today, this style of church, commonly referred to as “contemporary” is the 2011 iteration of seeker-sensitive churches. These are the types of churches that top the megachurch lists. These are the churches that host the Christian music artists when they come to town. These are the churches whose pastors are invited to speak at the Catalyst Conference, or whose attendees can choose from seven styles of latte when they come to church on Sunday morning. If fog machines during the worship make it seem more like a rock concert—you know, to help the nonbeliever feel a bit more comfortable—that’s the approach they’ll take.
Contrary to the excoriations of their more conservative brethren, contemporary churches aren’t just craving acceptance or cool status. Although there may be a bit of those fleshly desires mixed in, the goal of these churches is to reach lost people with the gospel. As the logic goes, if we can create an atmosphere where nonbelievers are comfortable, they will be more likely to come and hear the gospel and have a relationship with Jesus. Matthew 28:18-20 makes the mission of the church very clear. This understanding of the purpose of a church service upholds the Great Commission as a driving force behind the style of worship service chosen. The motive is sterling—reach people for Jesus. Armed with a clear sense of mission and purpose, the church sets its budget, crafts its style, builds the building, buys the electric guitars, and finds the finest Java for their coffee shop.
Here’s a video with a humorous approach to this style of church:
Answer #2: A place where believers can gather to worship.
Opponents to this style of church will be found in a different-looking setting. Pews and hymnals are more commonplace. Attire is usually a bit more dressy, and the pastor is usually wearing a tie—if not a bona fide black robe.
For this group of people, church looks different because, after all, church is not for nonbelievers. It’s for Christians! Why did the church get started, anyway? Was it so nonbelievers could come in, sit down, and watch a show that might make them want to become Christians or rearrange their lifestyle to look Christianesque or a bit more moral? Absolutely not. Church is a place where believers gather, worship, fellowship, and observe the ordinances instituted by our Lord.
If nonbelievers feel a bit uncomfortable in such a church setting, the staff isn’t wringing their hands thinking, “Oh, no, no! What should we do or not do to make them feel more comfortable?” Why are they unconcerned? Because the gospel is going to be offensive, ridiculed, and scorned by nonbelievers (1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 1:23-25; Matthew 5:11).
This group of Christians are trying to protect the purpose of the church, as they believe it to be. Worship is crucial. Careful Bible teaching is central. In fact, preaching (not the worship music) is the highlight of the church’s service. This approach to church does not necessarily neglect the mission of the church. The support missionaries, witness to their neighbors, and may hold “revival” meetings. They simply see the Sunday-morning service to be primarily for the benefit of believers.
Many people may be more comfortable in a church setting where the music is jacked up, where jeans are the sanctioned dress code, and where no one is called upon to kneel, to read a Scripture passage, or to pray aloud. Others are far more comfortable in a building with a sanctimonious hush, holding a hard-backed hymnal, and hearing the sonorous strains of a pipe organ.
Some Hybrids, More Questions, and…Any Solutions?
As you think about your church, raise objections, and consider exceptions, please understand this: no church fits neatly into just one of the categories above. In fact, many churches are trying to bridge the purpose-of-service chasm by holding several different styles of service–a “contemporary” and a “traditional.” But here’s where we need to insert an important lesson. The real issue is not one of style. It’s an issue of emphasis, mission, purpose, philosophy, and biblical understanding.
At the beginning of this article I wrote, “Answering this question is going to drastically affect what you do at 11am on Sunday morning.” Now you probably see why. If you consider church as a place where believers gather for corporate worship, then the presence of pews isn’t going to bother you. If, on the other hand, you’re wanting unbelievers to stream through the church doors, then you’re probably more interested in allocating funds to a bigger trap set. The approach you take will affect the choices you make.
Each approach has its dangers; each has its advantages. But is their a way to reconcile the two into one happy medium? Or perhaps, is there clear biblical directive to choose one way above another way?